Many call Trump a fascist. 100 days in, is he just a reactionary Republican?
On May 10, 1933, Adolf Hitler’s 100th day as German chancellor, as students and Nazi storm troopers lit bonfires of un-German books in central Berlin, the new Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda Goebbels endorsed their “right to clean up the debris of the past.” On February 6, 1923, his 100th day in office, Mussolini battered parliament with another bellicose speech, this one about Italy’s right to play a more aggressive role in international affairs.
Neither the 44-year-old Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, whom President General Von Hindenburg had named Reich’s Chancellor on January 30, 1933, nor the 39-year-old Duce of Fascism, whom King Victor Emmanuel III had called to Rome on October 30, 1922 to form a cabinet, began with an electoral majority.
The establishment’s expectation was that they would get rid of the left and trade unions, bring back law and order, and restore the nation’s ancient glory. Yet by the end of their first 100 days of rule, they had obtained so tight a grip over national political life that by the end of another thousand, they had become dictators for life.
Politics is all about timing, as Machiavelli said. Not being able to choose the times or circumstances, the Prince’s success depends on his virtue or genius and good fortune. And both in turn depend on having an agenda, sticking with it, and finding the way for the vested interests and major institutions of power to accommodate it. That is especially true, if the Prince, Fuhrer, or Duce, however we want to call him, claims to want to change everything to bring back national greatness.
Now Donald Trump did want to change everything, if we take seriously his October 2016 “100-Day Action Plan to Make America Great Again.” Pursuing this end, many have accused him of showing fascistic impulses in his contempt for the administrative state and eagerness to upend the liberal international order, his hyper-nationalism, militarism, populist sympathies, cult of leadership, misogyny, racism, and political showmanship.
Has his modus operandi in his first months in office reinforced this accusation? Or have his alt-right propensities been coopted by the establishment he promised to oust?
If we look at Adolf Hitler’s action over his 100 days, we see his goals were terrifyingly consistent, namely, to build a world empire over the corpse of the Soviet Union and to eliminate the Jews. And he was utterly ruthless to achieve those ends, starting the very evening of Day 1, when he paraded tens of thousands of followers around parliament in a torch lit parade. Day 3, February 1, 1933, in a national radio address to the German people, after underscoring the “appalling inheritance of 14 years of Marxist parties and their followers,” he asked for ”four years and then to judge us”.
But he had no intention to wait for, much less to be judged on the basis of open elections. As the condition for accepting the appointment, he had President Hindenburg promise to dissolve parliament and hold elections on March 5. Meanwhile, after filling all of the major police and security positions with his own men, he governed without parliamentary checks. By the end of Week 2, Hitler had reassured the military and industrial establishments of his plans for rearmament and infrastructure projects.
By lucky timing, before Month 1 was up, on February 27, the Reichstag building, home to the German parliament, was set on fire, Hitler immediately laid the blame on a communist plot to overthrow the government, and before the next day was over, issued the so-called Reichstag Fire Decree “for the Protection of the People and the State,” stripping citizens of their constitutional liberties and outlawing the Communists.
This enabled Hitler, after his coalition won the March 5 general elections by a plurality, to muster the two-thirds majority to pass the Constitution-changing Enabling Act on March 23, to strip the Reichstag of its legislative powers, and create the legal basis for his dictatorship.
On 11 March, Hitler extracted cabinet approval for the creation of the infamous Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. On March 20, with arrests of the political opposition soaring into the scores of thousands, the Bavarian police commissioner, Heinrich Himmler, opened the first concentration camp at Dachau. By Day 60 or so, after the left parties had been smashed, organized labor became easier to coopt.
On May 1, Hitler’s 90th day, he held the first national socialist May Day, only to dissolve the unions altogether the following week and to incorporate them soon thereafter into the Nazi Party-controlled Labor Front.
With that, virtually every signature policy was in place. Germany was a full-fledged dictatorship. The Nazi Party, which had 850,000 members on his Day 1, had soared to 2.85 million on day 100. As for the Jews: on April 1, the Third Reich began systematic persecution with a one-day boycott of Jewish businesses.
If we look at Mussolini, he seem slower paced, but only because Hitler had learned from the Duce’s 1922 coup, failed at his own first Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and spent the next ten years perfecting his targets and timing.
In his first 100 days, Mussolini usurped power immediately by taking the key Foreign and Interior Departments for himself, obtaining emergency powers to push through fiscal and civil service reforms, without parliamentary approval, and on November 16, 1922, by making his first speech as Prime Minister to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, flaunting his power.
“I could have transformed this drab silent hall into a bivouac for my squads…I could have barred the door to parliament and formed a government exclusively of fascists, he said, “but I chose not to, at least not for the present.”
To allay the establishment’s suspicions of him as an ex-socialist, he made nice with the Church and he de-regulated wartime controls on industry, reversed land reforms, reduced inheritance taxes, and privatized telephone and telegraph services.
Like Hitler, he set up a parallel government. On December 15, he set up a parallel cabinet in the Grand Council. On January 3, he turned his private army of black shirts into a national militia loyal solely to him, not the King or the Army. Failing to coopt the left unions, he licensed his squads to terrorize them.
People protested after a Black Shirts massacred 19 workers on December 18 at Turin, only to see the government amnesty the squadristi five days later for having acted in the name of the nation.
President Trump, who started his 100 days with a Republican majority in Congress, immediately showed his authoritarian impulses with his show-off immigration ban, only to see it overturned by the courts, and he set up his National Security Council outside of normal channels, only to see his main advisors unceremoniously removed.
Fortunately, the US has faced no national emergency to accelerate the tempo of his illegalities, though the president has flailed around to invent one – or several – in terrorist immigrants, North Korean missiles, terrorist attacks abroad, and the disloyal “party of the opposition” in the liberal media.
However, with no significant activist base of his own, no special laws to suppress dissent, and no monopoly over the media, he can’t prevent the opposition from growing louder and louder. And the liberal international order, no matter how dispirited at the US’s harum-scarum leadership, is multilateral and with substantial enough ballast in the United Nations, international treaties, and other powers, notably China and the European Union to curb the worst saber-rattling
Whereas the establishment embraced Hitler and Mussolini, Trump has embraced the establishment. That leaves us to conclude that after having fumbled around his first 100 days, the 45th president will push ahead another thousand days in the time-honored ways of reactionary Republican regimes.
He has brought Wall Street into his inner circle, empowered the military to make national strategy, reinforced racial antagonisms by enhanced policing, and by means of tariffs, regressive taxation, and cuts in provisions for health, education, and welfare intends to further impoverish America’s most vulnerable citizens, his own white working class constituency included.
That leaves us to contemplate liberal democracy’s greatest asset, namely, the tick tock of the electoral cycle. By the end of their 1,000 days, Mussolini spoke of “Eternal fascism,” and Hitler of the Thousand Year Reich. Trump will have to face elections, and failed presidents get turned out of office.
Victoria de Grazia is Professor of History at Columbia University. She has written numerous books on fascism